Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/An Ohio steamboat

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European travellers have often expressed their astonishment at the number, size, and splendour of the American steamboats on the river Hudson, Long Island Sound, the Great Western lakes, and the Mississippi and its branches. Some of the larger boats on the Hudson are more than 400 feet long, are furnished with magnificence, accommodate a thousand or more passengers, and steam twenty-three or four knots an hour.

But the finest boat, all things considered, that I ever saw on the American waters, was on the river Ohio, one of the mail packets between Cincinnati and Louisville, named after her owner, the Jacob Strader, a worthy citizen of Cincinnati, who had the ambition to build the finest steamboat in the world; and, of her kind, a high pressure western boat, I have nowhere seen her equal.

These western boats have striking peculiarities. They are broad of beam, and almost flat-bottomed. The rivers which drain the vast basin between the Alleghanies and the Rocky Mountains, some of them navigable 4000 miles from their common mouth on the Mexican Gulf, vary greatly in their depth. The lower Mississippi is 150 feet deep. The Ohio and upper Missouri may be thirty or forty feet deep at one season of the year, and scarcely as many inches at another. There are times when the Great Eastern, if past the bars at the mouths of the Mississippi, could steam up to Pittsburgh, among the Alleghanies, or to the foot of the Rocky Mountains,—and there are others, when the boys at Cincinnati can wade across the Ohio, and a steamboat drawing but twenty inches may stick fast on a sand-bar at the mouths of the Cumberland or Tennessee.

The Jacob Strader, like nearly all the western river boats, is high pressure, because the grit of the water would rapidly wear out the more costly and complicated low pressure engines. She has two powerful inclined engines, not working together upon one shaft, but upon each side wheel, separately. This is for the convenience of turning quickly in the sharp bends of a narrow channel. Such a boat, with the wheels going in different directions, can turn upon her centre, can be steered without a rudder, and rounds to, to make her landings, as she invariably does, with her head up stream, with the greatest facility.

As I stood upon the river’s brink, and looked up at this boat, I was greatly struck by her size and appearance. She is not, I judge, more than 300 feet in length, but rises in a light and graceful style of architecture, of which we have in this country no example, to a height of five storeys, or decks. On the first deck are the boilers, engines, fuel, and light freight, horses, carriages, and deck passengers. You mount a broad staircase and come to the spacious drinking saloon, barber’s shop, and luggage room. From this landing two fine staircases bring you to the captain’s office, where passengers are booked and their state-rooms assigned them. This is an ante-room to the great saloon, which broad, high, well-lighted, and furnished with marble tables, glass chandeliers, mirrors, sofas, &c., reaches to the stern of the boat, perhaps 200 feet. On each side are state rooms of a large size, and furnished with every convenience. The panels of the great saloon are painted in oil, with landscapes by the best artists, and no cost has been spared in upholstery. The whole boat is lighted with gas, and hot and cold baths can be had at a moment’s notice. The capacity of the kitchen and force of waiters is sufficient to provide a sumptuous dinner, with printed bills of fare, for 600 passengers. Beneath the ladies’ saloon is a large saloon fitted up expressly for children and their nurses.

Over the great saloon and its double range of state-rooms, is the promenade deck, on which are built the state-rooms of the officers and pilots. The deck above this is called the hurricane deck, and above this rises the pilot house; which, with its large windows on all sides, made comfortable by a stove in winter, commanding an unimpeded view, and communicating by signal-bells and speaking tubes with the engineers, and by chains from the wheel to the rudder, gives the pilots, as the steersmen of these boats are called, complete command of the boat in its often difficult navigation. The pilot, his mate, and two assistants, are very important personages. They have the entire charge and responsibility of navigation. The Captain indicates the points at which he wishes to land, and gives the signal for departure, but seldom interferes further with the course of the boat. The pilots are paid 200 or 300 dollars a month and found. Imagine yourself so favoured as to be invited by the pilot to take a seat in his glazed turret, forty feet above the water, and commanding a full panorama of the river valley through which you are gliding. Villages, farms, and forests seem to sweep past you. You meet steamers and pass flat boats, going lazily down with the current, carrying coal, perhaps, from the carboniferous banks of the Monongahela, where it crops out in great seams in the river bank, to Memphis or New Orleans. In its way, it is the poetry of travelling. The rail is more rapid, but in comfort there is no comparison.

None—for here is a bar where you can have your choice of every possible drink. Here is a table d’hote, with its bill of fare of fifty dishes. You may lounge on a sofa, promenade on the deck, play poker forward, chess amidships, or the pianoforte aft. It is your own fault if you do not, so being inclined, get up a discussion or a flirtation.

At night the Jacob Strader, dashing along the starlit river, all her windows blazing with lights, her furnace fires throwing their red glare forward, the black smoke, filled with sparks of fire, pouring from her tall smoke stacks, steam roaring from her escape pipes, perhaps a band playing, and a gay party dancing on her lofty promenade deck, is altogether a strange and curious picture. The polite Pasha of Egypt, when asked by the Empress Eugenie, if he was not surprised at the beauty of Paris, replied:

“No, Madame, I had read the ‘Arabian Nights.

These tales of Oriental and magical splendour would not give him the least idea of an Ohio Steamboat.